How to eat like a king whilst camping

Oh, the Great Outdoors.

Something about being outside makes me… hungry. And I think I’m not alone, seeing as our party of a dozen folks and a baby had exchanged almost 50 emails Re: “What shall we eat?” before we embarked on our trip to Shenandoah National Park this past weekend. As much as food makes me happy, having a food plan makes me even happier. I like to know what I will eat ahead of time, especially if my living circumstances for the weekend mimic that of a homeless person: sleeping outside, under a tarp (OK, a really nice tent owned by our really nice friends who shared… OK, OK, we also had an air mattress). I’ve told my husband before that this is why I never jumped at his last-minute, let’s-jump-in-the-car-and-camp-somewhere suggestions. I knew from the first organization email with this group of folks — who I think cleaned out a recent REI sale will all the camping goodies they own — that this was going to be a good, well-fed trip.

Much of the group had been camping to almost the same spot a few weeks before, so they knew the lay of the land, what was cooking feasible and what was not. We didn’t want anyone to be a slave to the stove, cooking meals for everyone else, or to spend all our time cooking. The plan was to do dinner on your own Friday night but leave room for S’mores (with dark chocolate… you’ll never go back) and to keep breakfasts easy. Until my dear hungry husband sent an email suggesting hardier breakfast foods, to which the group sweetly responded “I’ll bring the sausage” and “I’ll bring the bacon” and “I’ll bring the propane-fueled stove top.”

And so the big eating started at sunup Saturday, snacking on the first batch of pumpkin bread from my farmers market baker on the way to brush my teeth (you have to eat something first, you know). I came back to a big ole pot of fresh-brewed, propane-fueled coffee (these people know how to camp), complete with real half-and-half and sugar. And then came the bacon. Dear Gina took on bacon-making like a champ that morning, until the amount of grease in the pan was so much that it deep-fried final batches. 

Gina, bacon champion, had also brought some homemade muffins, crusted with a cinnamon topping, that were tough to stop eating. And then there were the “pancake-wrapped” sausages that could be skewered and cooked over the morning fire. I didn’t really want to know what they were made of, but they had been requested by name by the boys — and, eh, we were camping.

After I had stuffed myself on hardboiled eggs, bready confections and bacon, I was ready for some physical activity — or a nap. Thankfully we had a hardy hike planned for the day! Which meant I could earn more food-eating by that afternoon! Or before! (Too much excitement).

My favorite part of the hike was seeing our pups in doggie heaven. Our 9-month-old Ariel (a boxer-shepherd-hound mix of some sort) has the energy of hummingbird on cocaine, so we loaded her up with the cutest little doggie hiking backpack, leant to us by our neighbors, and filled it with water bottles. Didn’t seem to faze her.

She still had the energy to steal food and sticks and otherwise pester poor Strider, a 5-year-old golden retriever who likes Ariel… in doses. Haha.

And we were off on an all-afternoon hike. We probably hadn’t gone a mile before I felt I had earned my way into my snack pack. I can’t resist my favorite trail mix from Trader Joe’s, the one with nuts, dried fruit and three kinds (!!) of chocolate kisses in butterscotch, white and dark chocolate. I’m blanking on the name and, sadly, just ran out in my cupboard. Needless to say, there was very little left by the end of the hike. We stopped to eat about an hour in (I, actually, had never stopped eating) and everyone pulled out peanut-butter-and-jelly and chicken-salad sandwiches. Carrots for the almost-2-year-old were mostly consumed by the dogs. Her grapes were mostly eaten by the rest of us.

A great way to make chicken salad when going out of town for the weekend: add in just about everything in your fridge. My husband was halfway through his sandwich when he noticed green beans were part of the crunch. Oh, and celery and some leftover dill rice from an Iranian restaurant and flax seeds and who knows what else. I thought it was good. No one got food poisoning, so that’s always a plus.

And the dogs were a picture of outdoorsy happiness…

Back to the food… which is what we were all thinking by the end of the hike. We got a good sweat going on the route back (after realizing we could have made a loop, and seen the bear that some other girls saw just up the trail). Soon after arriving to the campsite, just as us girls had made plans to go take our $1, 5-minute showers for the weekend, then came the rain. We had been warned by friends and phones before we lost reception that it was coming. I felt bad for heading to the showers as everyone rushed to cover food and chairs and dogs from the downpour (apparently our dog presented the only problem in this arena). But I thought it was a great time to get a warm shower!

The rain only lasted about 30 minutes and, still not knowing what time it was, we decided we were hungry again (found out later we started eating “dinner” at 3 or 4 and didn’t stop until 9 or 10… whoops!) The storied camping couple had purchased a value pack of grill-perfect meats from Omaha Meats, including brats and dogs. Those were good and they went fast. The girls also busted out homemade salsas and hummuses, veggies and dip and lots of chips. Also on the grill were some incredible jalapeño poppers, accompanied yet again by the sound of sizzling bacon. Basically the entire grill and table were covered with food. I had to make the fish packets, our contribution to dinner, on part of the bench. But they turned out great!

The fish packets ended up being a round-two dinner for folks, with a bit lighter feel. Super easy to make.

Fish Packets:

  • Foil
  • 2 lbs. white fish or salmon. I used frozen Alaskan cod so it could thaw in the freezer and be ready for Saturday.
  • 3 or 4 colorful peppers and an onion, sliced in strips.
  • Balsamic salad dressing mix, or Italian could work, if camping. When at home, I splash together oils, spices and real balsamic, but it’s a bit messy for the road.

Grab a footlong sheet of foil. Place a portion size of fish, peppers and the like in the center. Add “marinade” dressing and seal the foil (think “tuck, tuck, fold” more than crumple — anyone seen Multiplicity?). Let it sit for a few minutes while you make the others, putting them on the fire in shifts. Leave each packet on the fire for 8 to 10 minutes, until steamy when opened and fish flakes off with a fork.

The group was too full to finish the last fish packet, which became a running joke (“Fish packet! Get your fish packet!”)… but a few minutes later we were ready for dessert. Looking for an alternative to the copious amount of S’mores I had already consumed, Cherise and I experimented with chocolate, bananas and foil. It was a good decision.

That inspired a campfire experiment at Bananas Foster… also a very good thing. We passed that around and eventually mixed chocolate into the skillet, dipping graham crackers in for samples. Yeah buddy.

So, fellow food lovers, my suggestions for your next camping trip?

  • Have a plan. Send a bajillion emails about it.
  • Bring lots of coolers, lots of plates and use the bear locker to keep away unwanted guests. Get a leash and stake for your dog, especially if he/she is a begger/scavenger.
  • Bring more food than you think you need. Have each family bring more than enough to feed themselves and you should be good. Ask about allergies and food preferences in some of those bajillion emails.
  • Experiment! There is fire, there is chocolate and there are skewers… so play with your food!
  • Don’t lick the hot-off-the-campfire metal skewer just to get that bit of ooey-gooey marshmallow center. IT IS NOT WORTH IT! And your friends will laugh at you.

What suggestions do you have? Any campfire recipes to share? Please do!

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